A Week in the Chinese Countryside

Written by Elizabeth Underwood, (Washington and Lee University) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Hangzhou, Fall 2018

During the first week of November, our program traveled to the Hangzhou countryside to live with a Chinese family and research different aspects of the Chinese country lifestyle. This activity allowed us to take a break from the fast-paced lifestyle of Hangzhou and appreciate the peaceful and calm environment of the country.

When we first arrived in the countryside, it was obvious that there were nearly no young adults. We only saw old people and young children walking on the sidewalks or inside of the shops, and our teachers explained to us how this is a growing problem in China that the Chinese government is desperately trying to fix by encouraging young people to work in the country rather than move to the city.

Other groups in our program chose to research the everyday lives of people in the country, how the town values protecting the environment, and how businesses operate in the countryside. However, my small group of four American students decided to research and observe education in the countryside throughout the week. We were able to visit an elementary school and a middle school where we sat in on classes, observed the students’ everyday routine, interviewed teachers, and even taught two English classes to a fifth-grade class and seventh grade class. At both schools, most of the students had never seen foreigners before and were quite shocked to see Americans in the same classroom as them. Many of the students in other classrooms ran to their windows and yelled “foreigners!” while trying to catch a glimpse of what we all looked like. All of the teachers and students were extremely welcoming to us and were eager to answer all of our questions and show us more about how their schools operate.

My personal favorite activity at the middle school was participating in the PE class with some of the middle schoolers. While I will admit I felt a little uncomfortable at first in the PE class because we were instructed to run laps around the gym and the middle schoolers students practically ran laps around us, the students welcomed us as one of their own and were eager to hear us speak Chinese and ask us questions about the United States. We enjoyed playing relay races, participating in long jump competitions, and completing obstacle courses with the students. I personally enjoyed playing games with the students in the PE class because it really helped us move past the language barrier and enjoy some lighthearted competition.

In addition to the PE class, the daily morning workout sessions were fascinating to observe. I had no idea that middle school and high school students had to work out and jog in groups every morning. We watched them run around the track several times, quickly complete many sets of sit-ups, and practice long jumps for nearly half an hour. The Chinese students we observed at these schools were clearly in very good shape and were obviously motivated to excel inside and outside of the classroom.

When the four of us taught an English class to a group of seventh graders, we decided to play a game with the class where we wrote down about a dozen words on the board in English, described a word to the class, and then students had to guess which word we were describing. We found that they had some difficulty understanding us during the game; however, we found that breaking up into small groups and asking them basic questions like “What do you like to do?” and “How many people are in your family?” helped them improve their English-speaking skills. I also think that hearing native-English speakers speak English really helped improve their pronunciation and listening skills.

One aspect that really struck me was how polite and respectful the students were. During every class we observed, the students all sat up straight and never slouched. They all stood up when it was their turn to speak and rarely spoke out of turn. Even when we taught our own English class, they referred to us as “teacher” and almost always quietly listened to us. It truly was fascinating to see how driven and motivated these students were, and I wish all American schools would adopt some of these characteristics.

When we returned to our host family homes every evening, our host aunt or “阿姨” had always prepared us a large dinner with a variety of foods that even accommodated my gluten allergy. Every night after dinner, the older Chinese women in the remote neighborhood all gathered together onto the neighborhood performance space where they would dance to Chinese pop songs for over an hour. We often attempted to join in with them and try to learn their dances, but the dance moves were actually fairly challenging and a little too fast for us. We mainly just awkwardly bounced around on stage as the women danced as if they were a part of a professional dance group.

Overall, living in the Chinese countryside for a week exceeded my expectations. The area that we stayed in was beautiful and surrounded by mountains and farms, and the individual houses were also impressive, often three or four stories high. The people in the countryside seem to live simple lives where they often farm, take care of their grandchildren while their children are working in the city, and rent out rooms in their homes to visitors. The specific area we visited was under a lot of construction, but within the next few years, I’m sure it will be built up and will hopefully encourage young people to move away from the cities and live a comfortable and peaceful live in the country.